(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 25, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I still associate foods with seasons. We all do, I think. Craving fresh vegetables straight from the garden is a springtime ritual. In the mountains our first salads were made with the first vegetables of spring, lettuce and green onions.We had our choice of dressings then, either hot bacon grease or cold homemade vinegar and oil. I was not fond of bacon grease, so I always asked for vinegar and oil. The cooks in my family made it with apple cider vinegar and whatever oil was available to them. It also held lots of herbs and spices and had a distinct cucumber flavor. It didn't occur to me to wonder where the cucumber flavor came from that early in spring, because cucumbers were not ripe until later in the summer. The vinegar/oil salad dressing at the dinner tables of my friends did not have a cucumber flavor. When my aunts served it, there was not the slightest taste of cucumber. It seemed that nobody's salad dressing tasted quite like ours. It was a while before I understood what was in the salad dressing that made the difference.
Sanguisorba minor, also known as garden burnet or salad burnet is a perennial herb that is native to Eurasia. It was introduced into North America and has become naturalized in scattered locations from Nova Scotia to Ontario, south to Virginia and Tennessee. It grows along roadsides, waste places and fields. It has slender stems growing about 2 feet tall and rising from a basal rosette of pinnately divided leaves. The toothed leaflets are oval and gray green. The light green to yellowish green flowers bloom from May through July and grow in clusters. The female flowers on the upper part have protruding red stigmas that give the plant a red glow. The male flowers on the lower part have drooping yellow stamens.
Burnet has an interesting history. On the night before a battle, soldiers fighting in the American Revolution dosed themselves with a tea made from garden burnet on the theory that if they suffered a wound on the following day, the burnet in their systems would keep them from bleeding to death. The Latin name of the plant, Sanguisorba, translates loosely as "blood absorber." It had other uses years ago as well. It was used as a treatment for digestive disorders and in the sixteenth century in England, it served as a remedy for rheumatism and gout. In the 17th century it was recommended as a protection against the plague and other infectious diseases.
My Aunt Bett didn't use the herb for any type of medicine. It is not effective dried, but fresh, it has a delicious cucumber-like taste. The young leaves of the plant, when chopped into tiny pieces, are delicious sprinkled over a salad, or in a vinegar/oil salad dressing. That was the flavor that I was missing in salads that were not made by the cooks in my family. It was burnet, with its strong cucumber taste. The French and Italian cooks value the herb for its flavor and add the leaves to salads also. Some cooks use it in cream cheeses, herbed butters and in iced drinks. I do remember that it was delicious in cold tomato juice, and there have been times when I tasted it in an early morning Bloody Mary. I really don't think I learned that from Aunt Bett or my Ninna.
Scientists have not provided studies to determine its value as a medicine, but I do know it is still being used as a culinary herb. The leaves of the plant do contain Vitamin C, and the plant itself is very tolerant of both drought and cold. It is also a food plant for the larvae of some butterflies and moths.
My family only considered it a seasoning, adding it to their dressing as they did. For the longest time I thought it must be a deep dark family secret since I never tasted that cucumber flavor when I ate anywhere else. But it was good, one of my favorite tastes, and I am delighted when I can find it growing anywhere these days. It is an early spring herb, and must be used only when fresh, otherwise it becomes bitter. The next time I find burnet, I am going to pick as many new leaves as I can, and I am definitely going to freeze them. I never know when I might need to spice up a richly flavored, high in Vitamin C Bloody Mary.
The first photo is from Public Domain, and the others are from Plant Files. Thanks to: Bonitin and Kennedyh for their excellent photos.
The Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Readers Digest Inc. 1986
Complementary & Alternative Medicines, Third Edition, C.W.Fetrow PharmD, Juan R.Avila, PharmD; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, New york, 2004